New Nordic Documentary Cinema

19 mins read

To describe the topic of Nordic documentary cinema as unexplored would be an understatement. Historical and contemporary writing on non-fiction film production, dissemination and reception in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden is as rare as warm bodies in the icy reaches of those fabled northernmost countries. Writing, especially in English, on the larger topic of Nordic cinema is scant, with the exception of Sweden. Among discerning film scholars and enthusiasts it is Sweden’s cinematic yield that has garnered the lion’s share of critical attention among all the Nordic nations, with many articles and volumes dedicated to the stoic cinemascapes of Bergman, Sjöström and other internationally celebrated Swedish auteurs.

But even the introductory reader Swedish Film expeditiously sums up one hundred years of documentary history in four stilted pages. I point this out not to berate the editors of Swedish Film, but to draw attention to the sad fact that documentary is either grossly absent or punitively present as a nit-picky (or niggly in Old Norse) afterthought, dusty footnote or perfunctory platitude.

Righting the wrong of such an egregious injustice to the documentary genre is of course no easy task, and not one I purport to be launching here. Yet the current media-abundant epoch, one in which the Nordic countries are proving to be prodigious exporters on the global documentary circuit, couldn’t be better timed for a modest intervention.

In their book Nordic National Cinemas, authors Tytti Soila, Astrid Söderbergh Widding and Gunnar Iversen wisely concede that lumping together five distinct nations, cultures, cinemas and histories under the banner “Nordic Cinema” serves to further maintain a theoretical construction with no direct corollary to the material reality of 25 million citizens. However, the same film scholars admit to the persistence of one defining feature shared by all the Nordic cinemas. They describe “culturally closed” film texts, or movies that rarely gain traction outside of their domestic context (with the usual exceptions beginning with Bergman’s oeuvre). They are, effectively, films made by Nordic artists for Nordic audiences. Of course Nordic National Cinemas was published in 1998—on the cusp of the genesis of the current documentary deluge, a popular uprising of non-fiction cinema that indeed includes the muscular export of Nordic works.

A deluge within a deluge

As a documentary programmer, I have noticed a disproportionate increase in non-fiction works from the Nordic outposts, an observation at odds with the notion of a “closed cinema.” Disproportionate, if one compares the numbers to the Nordic fiction films desperately seeking out international audiences, and disproportionate when measured against other documentary-producing countries.

Of course, I’m not the only one who has noticed this trend. Karen Rais-Nordentoft, festival director of Nordisk Panorama, attributes the outpouring toa concentrated effort by the various Nordic government film institutes, Filmkontakt Nord (an organization initiated by Nordic filmmakers that promotes Nordic shorts and docs internationally), and the FkN market, a five-city Nordic festival and industry event. Rais-Nordentoft says these forces have strategically pushed for Nordic docs in the last 10 years and the results are showing: they are finally “out there,” as she puts it.

With Nordic documentaries now a force on the international scene, what kind of deluge are we talking about?

The universal personal: identity and belonging

The New Nordic Documentary Cinema is marked by an impulse toward humanist storytelling that combines the personal with the political. It moves away from the dogmatic toward a nuanced social and political cinema intent on exploring actuality through the complexities of personal narrative. Rais-Nordentoft describes it as a “new wave” of Nordic docs that tackle “existential matters” that are deeply personal but connect larger universal subjects and issues.

It is the personal-universal frame that gives shape to so many contemporary Nordic documentaries and the results are quite exciting. Documentarians are making provocative, relevant and deeply moving narratives that drill down into the human psyche, looking for aspects of humanity that link us together, revealing the magnificent in the mundane (Paradise, Jerzy Sladkowski, 2007, Sweden), the transcendent in transformation (Inside Out, Katarina Johansson, 2009, Sweden), the torment in the terrorist (My Daughter the Terrorist, Beate Arnestad, 2007, Norway), the lurid in labour (How to Pick Berries, Elina Talvensaari, 2010, Finland) and the diversity of domesticity (Injustice?, Vibeke Winding and Malene Ravn, 2009, Denmark).

The recent docs discussed below are not meant as prototypes for their respective countries, but they do form a kind of apotheosis of New Nordic Documentary Cinema. They are linked by their authors’ refusals to follow worn-out documentary formulae championed by narration and talking-heads-addicted filmmakers in other countries. They are inventive, entertaining and bold stories that connect the larger social commons to personal experience. These docs explore universal struggles, values and truths by introducing us to wonderful subjects. Politically nuanced and honest, they are sensitive interrogations of identity and belonging.

Intimating identity: Sweden

Many Swedish documentarians have peered inward, interrogating Swedish history and culture and the myriad personal narratives of identity, belonging and struggle. In 2010 Marcus Lindeen, one of the founders of the innovative Swedish production company Atmo (along with Erik Gandini and Kristina Åberg), released Regretters, a hybrid production that mixes personal archives with a twist on the documentary interview. The film is a creatively complex work of art that centres on a conversation between two Swedish individuals who were born male, changed to female in their youth and now in their twilight years are switching to male and third gender, respectively.

Deeply involved and inspired, Orlando and Mikael’s one-hour discussion excavates the terrain of sexual identity, cultural oppression, memory and personal happiness. Lindeen pushes documentary boundaries by directing his subjects and shaping scenes to fit with the overall tone and texture of the film: clean, crisp, highly structured and stylized. The fascinating conversation between Orlando and Mikael takes place in a studio, and they are made up and lit accordingly. The result is a strange mix of revealing personal narrative with a highly organized visual aesthetic, reminiscent of fiction fare.

Regretters is a staggeringly intimate and touching display of humanity. The search for understanding, belonging, redemption and individual expression gives life to the deceptively bare-bones aesthetic of two Swedes sitting on chairs and chatting with a slide projector between them illuminating their separate histories. The film conveys the experience of two individuals who have gone through so much and who are incredibly generous in their accounts, and reveals universal qualities of humanity without jettisoning the real political and social struggles queers face in a straight society.

Swedish documentarians have also oscillated their focus between exterior and interior social spaces, with many excellent exploratory missions conducted outside of the country’s borders such as The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975 (Göran Olsson, 2011), Israel Versus Israel (Terje Carlsson, 2010) and Videocracy (Erik Gandini, 2009). The documentary genre in Sweden has shown an incredibly rich and creative mélange of approaches and styles from animated gems like Tussilago (Jonas Odell, 2010), to music-video doc Surplus (Erik Gandini, 2003), to the arresting short Denied (Aage Rais-Nordentoft, 2009).

Counter histories: Denmark

Prolific, provocative and powerful, Danish documentary cinema has stirred up international audiences with diverse (and divisive) works like The Red Chapel (Mads Brügger, 2009), Armadillo (Janus Metz Pedersen, 2010), Blood in the Mobile (Frank Piasecki Poulsen, 2010), Nobody Passes Perfectly (Saskia Bisp, 2009) and Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country (Anders Østergaard, 2008). A film less known on the festival circuit but equally deserving attention is Hello My Name is Lesbian (Iben Haahr Andersen & Minna Grooss, 2009). According to the synopsis, in the one-hour doc, “Women from 19 to 84 talk about sex, loneliness, love, gender roles, the family and parenthood.” Through personal memories and stories, Hello My Name is Lesbian recounts the history of lesbian life in Denmark, from the 1950s (where often subtle acts of cultural resistance developed into community belonging) to the contemporary queer scene as it co-mingles but never fully integrates with mainstream Danish society.

Hello My Name is Lesbian is an important and lively document that challenges mainstream and orthodox histories of Danish culture and society through close and sincere engagement with diverse Danish women. From formal partner dancing classes to group masturbation workshops to club life (including the beats and politics of scene-stealers and acclaimed band Fagget Fairys), the documentary examines an aspect of Danish society often made invisible in other cinematic works. Using archival images, cutout animation, interview and vérité, Hello My Name is Lesbian celebrates the complex constellations of gender and sexuality in Denmark as experienced by generations of lesbian women.

Troubling progress: Iceland

Iceland, with its relatively tiny population of 320,000, produces the fewest documentaries of the Nordic nations, but what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality. Several recent films have examined Iceland’s history, genealogy and catastrophic gamble with neo-liberal capitalism, including God Bless Iceland (Helgi Felixson, 2009), Decoding Iceland: The Ultimate Test Tube Nation (H.A. Arnarson, 2009), Future of Hope (Henry Bateman, 2011), and the impeccable Dreamland (Þorfinnur Guðnason and Andri Snær Magnason, 2009).

A common thread present in Icelandic docs is the exploration of the temperament of a nation of individuals who share so much in common, deriving as they do from a relatively restricted gene pool, and the ways aspects of commonality (versus capitalistic individuality) can be leveraged for social change. Dreamland is a film that carries this thread, exploring the social, psychological and economic reasons behind the state-sanctioned, private-interest takeover of the country’s commons. Beautiful and haunting, Dreamland deploys its share of talking heads and narration, but, together with finely stitched footage of industry, consumerism and the natural environment, this treatise on ecology is pure persuasion cinema.

Dreamland is a film concerned with shaking Icelanders out of a consumer dream-state in order to respond to an often inaudible cry for help that comes from the precious and unique environment around them. By prying into the human condition that allows us to sit idle as terrible things happen, while simultaneously giving a voice to the air, water, tundra and animals of the physically isolated but globally connected country, Dreamland reveals the brutality and injustice of capitalism while provoking a movement charged with taking back the commons in Iceland and beyond.

Personal ills: Norway

There is something sadly prophetic in the documentary Health Factory (Håvard Bustnes, 2010), where experts are brought in to help Norwegian hospitals become more efficient by implementing the “Toyota system.” Health Factory is one of many contemporary Norwegian docs, such as Living without Money (Line Halvorsen, 2011) and Modern Slavery (Thomas Robsahm and Tina Davis, 2009), that address the effects and responses to neoliberal economic systems.

Imaginative and playful, Health Factory informs and entertains through inventive visuals and personal stories while not getting weighed down in facts and figures. To steal a line from one subject in the film, it’s a lovely blend of “personal health and impersonal statistics.”

The film compellingly makes absurd the comparison between a hospital and a factory, brilliantly represented in various scenes of patients moving along conveyor belts and fork-lifted about in barren, dystopic factory settings. Health Factory looks into the fundamental questions of what motivates individuals and challenges the economic orthodoxy of self-interest. Norwegian health care workers and activists lay out the consequences of transforming public institutions into private corporations without any Michael Moore moral panic or dogmatic fist-pounding. This documentary is a nuanced peek into a heated and complex debate that shows with a subtle ease the absurdity and sickness inherent in the philosophy of commodification and free markets.

Sauna life: Finland

One of the best-known examples of a personally penetrating Nordic doc, in this case about the dark psychic spaces of the effects of war, is the Finnish tripartite essay The 3 Rooms of Melancholia (Pirjo Honkasalo, 2004). As a pensive and unnerving exploration of the human condition, 3 Rooms is reminiscent of a more contemporary Finnish masterpiece, Steam of Life by Joonas Berghäll and Mika Hotakainen (2010). A festival hit last year, Steam of Life takes the unlikely setting (for a documentary, at least) of the Finnish sauna as the window to the soul of one nation’s men. If ever there was a documentary driven by the possibility to lay bare the emotions of individuals, unencumbered by the artifices of the standard documentary interview set-up, it is Steam of Life.

Moving between various saunas all over Finland, the film gives audiences a seat inside the cozy, warm rooms where naked men of all shapes and sizes talk about love, life, death and the Finnish male identity. Men—manly Finnish men!—break down as they tell their companions about overcoming (or surviving) the pains of loss and grappling with traditional narrow interpretations of Finnish manliness.

Steam of Life is Nordic minimalism at its finest, a lucid rendering of the universal personal that remains one of the finest Finnish films to date.

A winning combination

This small but kraftig sampling of some recent hits from the Nordic doc terrain is meant to introduce readers to a regional cinema that may at one time have been justifiably described as culturally closed, but is now, at least in non-fiction form, very visible and mobile on the global film stage. The New Nordic Documentary Cinema comprises scores of strong humanist works that elevate the personal into the realm of the deeply political and universally social. Rais-Nordentoft, the Nordisk Panorama director, sees a winning combination in contemporary Nordic docs, where a dedication to global political and social issues combines with localized storytelling in strong, professionally rendered works. It is a trend that this audience member hopes will continue.

If there is a lesson to be learned here, it’s twofold. On the industry front, strong cultural institutions and collaborative initiatives clearly go a long way in sustaining the documentary deluge, whether it’s professionalism, production or dissemination. On the content front, non-fiction storytelling has used up the vast reserve of talking heads, manifesto narration and liberal fist-waving of the 1990s and 2000s. Audiences are smarter and more savvy than previously conceived and will ascend the growing mountain of nuanced, personalnarrative, social-issue docs faster than you can say Skol!

The Danes have a saying that the road to a friend’s house is never long. May the same be true of your path to New Nordic Documentary Cinema.

Ezra Winton is a settler writer, curator and teacher from K’ómoks territory. He is a co-founder of Cinema Politica and Assistant Professor, Journalism and Mass Communication at the American University in Bulgaria.

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